An appreciation of required tasks and a broad approach encompassing physical/psychosocial risk factors are required to contain the incidence/severity of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) among call-center employees according to a recent study by an Australian investigator.
Although trained to assume an “ideal” static seating posture, workers would perform dynamic body positioning due to psychosocial and work expectations (easy visual contact/communication with coworkers; easy viewing of the computer monitor). As a result, operators tended to doubt the practicality and credibility of ergonomic concepts they were expected to follow.
The incidence/severity of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) was reported to be related to changes in cognitive demands (such as the introduction of a new software system) and negative performance reviews.
Early intervention programs were found to be effective at reducing the number of lost workdays associated with postural related complaints.
Study Background and Design
Six call-centers (3 in the banking and 3 in telecommunications) that employed from 100 to 350 operators participated in the study. Management of each center recognized the risk of musculoskeletal disorders in the performance of operator tasks and had developed multiple strategies to control exposures.
At each center, data was collected through consultation with administration/staff, interviews with company ergonomists, observations/measurements taken in the work areas, and review of incident/injury reports.
Staff was primarily female (80 percent), 20 to 60 years of age, and worked either 4 or 8 hour shifts. Most employees had less than two years of experience. Prescription glasses were worn by 30 percent of the workers.
At each call-center, 10 operators were observed carrying out tasks and interviewed to determine duties/performance expectations. They interacted with customers by taking in-coming/placing out-going calls while concurrently interfacing with computer based software knowledge/information systems. The operators were commonly evaluated through a series of quantitative and qualitative performance matrixes.
Ergonomic Program Characteristics
For all operators, new employee orientation included ergonomic training with an emphasis on worker assumption of a preferred static posture while performing computer based tasks.
Generic static posture orientated checklists to optimize the workstation were available to staff.
Qualified evaluators or external ergonomists worked with employees who reported postural discomfort through an early intervention program.
A sample of 20 workstation heights and seating adjustment options was acquired from each center. The work surface vertical height at all centers could be adjusted from 630mm to 750 mm. All monitors were liquid crystal displays with height adjustment capability.
At four call-centers, employees had dedicated workstations while at two centers workstations were shared. Five percent of the workstations could be adjusted to a standing height (up to 1100 mm) at three call-centers.
Other Study Findings
1) The mouse was used as an input device as much as the keyboard. Tab and function keys were used frequently.
2) There was no pattern in the number of incidence reports or workers’ compensation claims relative to the size of the call-centers. A small center had 10 incident reports per month while a large center had just a few.
3) Operators that had sustained an injury were more likely to set their work surfaces to anthropometrically correct heights.
4) Generic static posture orientated checklists to optimize the workstation were found to be ineffective when an employee had postural discomfort. Progress occurred when a qualified examiner/ergonomist made recommendations to the employee and local manager.
5) Staff who sustained a significant time-lost injury frequently had to contend with psychosocial factors that jeopardized their return to work (fear that tasks would aggravate their injury; lack of social support from work peers).
6) Among staff who wore prescription glasses, there was awareness of the need to properly set the vertical height/angle of the monitor. However, these employees were observed to assume awkward neck postures for extended durations.
All data collection and interpretation seemed to be conducted by one person, which may introduce interpretation bias.
The Bottom Line
To be effective, a call-center ergonomic program needs to be based on job tasks and have a holistic perspective.
Article Title: Holistic approaches to the prevention of musculoskeletal disorders among call-center workers
Publication: Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, 3:81-84, 2007 (Suppl)
Author: D C Caple
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2008-03-26.